Brazil ramps up production of GMO sugarcane despite success of regenerative agriculture methods; Non-GMO Project Verified sugar options are available
Brazil is increasing production of genetically modified sugarcane this year but a leading producer of regenerative organic sugarcane says GMO sugar is bad for the environment and will only provide short-term solution to pest problems.
GMO sugarcane acreage to double
Sugar is produced from either sugarcane (80% of world’s sugar) or sugar beets (20% of global sugar). In both crops, recent transitions to sourcing sugar from genetically modified seed is tainting the sweet product and causing even more concern about its consumption and impact on our global food systems.
GMO sugar beets dominate U.S. production—95% of all sugar beets now grown in the U.S. are GMO—and with 55%-60% of all U.S. sugar derived from sugar beets, many of those chocolate bars are filled with GMO sugar.
Now, GMO sugarcane is being commercially grown in Brazil. The world’s largest sugarcane producing country approved GMO cane, developed by Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (CTC), in 2017. The GMO sugarcane is genetically engineered with the Bt gene to resist the cane borer insect, responsible for $1.5 billion in annual losses to domestic producers.
The first harvest of the crop was in 2021; Brazil just announced plans to double the transgenic sugarcane acreage to 173,000 acres in the 2022/23 crop cycle, up from 91,400 acres last year.
Despite the increase in acreage, GMO sugarcane will only account for about 2% of Brazil’s total sugarcane acreage of 9 million acres.
GMO sugarcane: “False expectation for the future of agriculture”
Leontino Balbo Jr., executive vice president at Natíve Green Cane Project, a producer of regenerative organic sugarcane, says GMO sugarcane is “bad for the environment, soil and human health.”
According to Balbo, 50% of Brazil’s sugarcane farmers use agroecological methods to control pests but many may abandon those methods because proponents of GMO sugarcane are claiming it will solve their problems.
“GMO sugarcane will bring temporary results. They are creating a false expectation for the future of agriculture. It’s a trap,” he said.
Balbo points to the experience of Brazil’s grain farmers with GMO Bt corn as an example of the narrow-minded approach of GMOs.
“Bt corn was effective initially but after 2-3 years farmers had problems. Now they are using biological controls (to eliminate pests),” he said.
Sugarcane producers are influenced by the experience of grain farmers. “I think the enthusiasm that grain producers have for biological controls will influence sugarcane producers,” Balbo said. They are a reference for technology to adopt.”
Balbo’s regenerative organic sugarcane production is already producing the results that CTC is promising with GMO sugarcane.
“We have a 1.5% infestation (of caterpillars). The average in conventional fields is 8%. CTC is promising growers that GMO sugarcane will guarantee an infestation of 1.5% to 2%. By natural means I am getting the infestation that CTC is promising. They are 25 years late,” he said.
Fortunately, there is no threat of contamination threat from GMO sugarcane seed. The sugarcane plants are not pollinated by seeds, which are sterile, Balbo said.
Natíve Green Cane Project produces regenerative organic sugarcane on nearly 50,000 acres and supplies one-fifth of the world’s organic sugar and exports it to 64 countries.
Non-GMO verified sugar options available
One threat posed by increasing GMO sugarcane acreage—as happened in the U.S. with sugar beets—is that food producers may need to scramble to find sources of non-GMO cane sugar that hasn’t been tainted by Brazilian GMO cane.
“They won’t know if it’s GM or not, because at this time there is no infrastructure for segregating the non-GMO and GMO sugar supply, the way there is for organic,” said Hans Eisenbeis, communications director of the Non-GMO Project. “Until now, we’ve been able to say cane sugar is non-GMO across the board, because there was no GMO sugarcane. Now we may have to consider adding it to our ‘high risk’ category of ingredients.”
If sugarcane goes on the “high risk” list, it could stimulate production of non-GMO sugar beets. “Our best option is to influence the public and the food industry to ask for segregation of a non-GMO supply,” Eisenbeis said. “We’d love to see the same segregation with conventional non-GMO sugarcane as we’ve seen with organic foods. For sugar beets, which are easier to grow in temperate climates, it would be great to grow U.S. acreage planted in non-GMO beets, and have a segregated supply chain for that domestic source of sugar.”
For consumers, the new labeling guidelines in the U.S. already make it difficult to locate GMO sugar in food products. “The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard is concerned with GMO material that’s detectable in the final product. In sugar production, the refining process makes GMO material not detectable. Some manufacturers may volunteer the information on their label (‘contains bioengineered material’) but they’re not required to,” Eisenbeis said.